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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Getting to grips with Sex

Getting to grips with Sex

Getting to grips with Sex

Travel guides on Cambodia invariably draw a stark contrast with Thailand. Readers

are told not to expect the same emphasis on sex, that Khmer women are shy and innocent.

The sex industry is small and, what there is, grew up in response to UNTAC's presence.

But those who dig below the surface often find a diametrically opposed picture. One

could argue that Cambodia is a sex-mad society.

It is very important to understand Khmer sexual attitudes if programs to contain

or limit AIDS and population growth are to be effective.

The Thai experience - where AIDS took off in three short years - is a salutary indicator

of the real risk facing Cambodia. Three years after the epidemic began, 33 percent

of HIV-positive women had been infected by their husbands - a staggering ratio compared

to intravenous drug-users (six percent) and prostitutes (20 percent). Potential parallels

for its speed in Cambodia are uncomfortably close.

Cambodia's so-called "population time bomb" is the other cogent reason

for trying to understand Khmer sexual attitudes. The dynamic of present growth rates,

which are probably low estimates, show Cambodia will have a population of 20 million

within 25 years.

Currently the country cannot ensure basic necessities for the bulk of its nine million

people . It has always needed external support for its budget deficit and will face

an inexorable problem raising living standards if it is to avoid social unrest. All

this within a time-frame of half a generation or less.

An important study, Men are Gold, Women Cloth initiated by CARE Cambodia and available

next January, shows that a number of fundamental Khmer cultural attitudes towards

sex and their resultant behavior will make tackling these two issues extraordinarily


Khmer society gives prime importance to the male and places the woman in a subservient

role. In practice, men are considered able to determine their destiny and are allowed

wide discretion. Women, on the contrary, are seen to be dependent on circumstances.

The family is the central micro-economic unit which is strengthened through judicious

marriage. The prime factors for the latter are potential spouse earning-power, standing

in the patron-client community, and social respectability. Most marriages are arranged

by elders.

The contractual element is uppermost, with romantic love and physical attraction

low on the list of required attributes, although virginity is highly-prized.

A single woman is perceived as an incomplete person. She is under considerable pressure

to remain "pure" and sexually-ignorant until marriage. Her premium lies

in keeping a respectable home, successfully managing the finances and rearing children

- preferably boys.

The general lack of sexual attraction as a reason for marriage, together with the

emphasis on sex for procreative purposes, leads to a fatalistic acceptance that men

will naturally seek sexual pleasure elsewhere.

Coupled with this is the widely held view that men have an unquenchable sexual appetite

which has to be gratified through frequency and variety. As wives are often incommoded

(menstrual cycle or pregnancy), or having lost their bloom through early child-bearing,

it is accepted that men should have girl friends and regularly visit prostitutes.

Married women are rarely unfaithful but then how could they be? They are not expected

to go out alone and, moreover, the potential loss of respectability in a "know-it-all-society"

makes the risk too great.

Compounding the wives' situation is the strong belief that they should not display

sexual experience or personal desire. This is fatally associated with two ideas:

that continued condom-use implies doubts about marital fidelity; and that condoms

- when used at all - are for pleasurable, illicit sex; not something to do with a

married woman.

There is no place in Phnom Penh where a woman can obtain advice on sexual techniques

or even to talk about sex openly.

The majority of men of all ages - beginning with a boy's sexual initiation around

15 years - regularly visit prostitutes and have multiple partners.

In a wide-ranging sample, 58 percent of men reported two or more sexual partners

in the previous two weeks. Two Khmer sayings typify the attitude: "All Cambodian

men but monks visit prostitutes" and "Ten rivers are not enough for one


The sex industry encompasses highly-expensive night clubs and hotels, dancing and

floating restaurants, massage parlors, mini-hotels, "sweetheart" cafes

and ordinary brothels, of which there are over 260 in the capital.

The industry is organized at two distinct client levels based on price, with foreigners

and the wealthy paying between $30 and $80 for services. At the lower end of the

market, prices average around $5-$10.

Excluding ancillary associated factors, like alcohol sales and pimps' commissions,

the Phnom Penh sex industry generates between $7-$10 million a year currently.

Khmer male sex attitudes, while somewhat extreme and infantile in their insistence

on the right to untrammeled gratification, are little different from most male fantasies

the world over.

Here, again, economic reasoning suggests that only a two-pronged approach would be

likely to dent the prejudice against condom use. One is AIDS education, the other

to limit the number of children to what each couple can realistically afford, particularly

if they want their next generation to materially better their lifestyle.

The key is with women's perceived role in society. Chou Ta Kuan, the Chinese chronicler

of Cambodian customs in the 13th century, noted female sexuality and the acceptance

of their need and right to take lovers after only a four day absence of their spouse.

Today, partly through the ending of Cambodia's previous isolation, the impact of

UNTAC, the return of expatriate Khmers and the growth in video parlors, the beginning

of change among women can be noticed.

This suggests one can question the extent to which existing sexual values are really

entrenched. They may well be closely correlated to the inordinate number of unattached

females relative to eligible males at present. In which case, the near future may

show they are not impermeable. Nevertheless, for the moment they must be taken into

consideration however antediluvian they may appear to Western eyes, and ways devised

for using them to bring about any desired results.


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